Penn State team explores creative solutions for health provider safety

March 28, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In just a few weeks, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States has skyrocketed from less than 100 to more than 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With it, the demand for face masks, ventilators and other personal protective equipment (PPEs) among health care workers has surged. An interdisciplinary team of more than 100 Penn State faculty, staff and students has mobilized to address the widespread shortage of protective gear by creating fast and scalable solutions for sterilizing and manufacturing PPEs. 

“The number of people who will ultimately become infected with COVID-19 could reach the hundreds of millions by some projections,” said Lora Weiss, senior vice president for research. “Our Penn State community has joined forces to investigate multiple solutions at once to help protect our health care workers who are on the frontlines of fighting this disease.”

The initiative — called Manufacturing and Sterilization for COVID-19 (MASC) — began when Tim Simpson, Paul Morrow Professor of Engineering Design and Manufacturing in the College of Engineering, transitioned his undergraduate 3D printing course to remote delivery. Simpson also co-directs the Penn State Center for Innovative Materials Processing through Direct Digital Deposition (CIMP-3D).

“It was going to be tough to run a hands-on lab when students weren’t allowed in the labs, so I started looking for ideas about 3D printing COVID-19 PPEs, which students can help design from their homes,” he said. “My students jumped at the opportunity to focus their project on this pressing need.”

The project quickly grew beyond Simpson’s class to include more experts from the College of Engineering, the Applied Research Lab (ARL), the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and the Smeal College of Business.

“Penn State is known for its ability to bring experts together from across the disciplines to develop creative solutions to global challenges,” said Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean of Engineering. “In this unprecedented time, we are proud that so many of the most innovative minds across the University  are stepping up to help lead this interdisciplinary initiative and address a major health crisis.”

The community beyond Penn State also is pitching in. For example, Actuated Medical Inc., a medical device manufacturer in Bellefonte, has offered to make available 9,000 square feet of manufacturing space that can be scaled up to 18,000 square feet if needed. Another local startup, NanoHorizons, is providing input on alternative sterilization methods, as well as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process. Meanwhile, Salimetrics, a local biotechnology company, has offered to share its supply of swabs for testing if needed. 

MASC now comprises three overarching sets of activities:

  • Manufacturing activities are focused on developing fast and scalable approaches for making face shields, N95 masks, ventilator parts, swabs, gowns and other items as needs arise.
  • Sterilization activities are aimed at evaluating techniques, such as ultraviolet radiation, vaporized hydrogen peroxide and plasma methods, for rapid and large-scale sterilization of PPEs.
  • Legal and regulatory efforts involve tracking how the team’s solutions conform to regulations from the FDA, which are changing frequently as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds. 

One of MASC’s products is already approaching the production phase. Charles Tricou, ARL research and development engineer, and his team have created a working prototype of a 3D-printed face shield. Although 3D-printing an entire shield at scale proved not to be feasible, the prototype gave Tricou and his team ideas on how to improve the design. 

“The ability to 3D-print the headband enabled us to rapidly design and evaluate conventional, low-cost, high-production rate approaches using readily available sheet stock to meet the critical need for face shields,” Tricou said.  

The improved shield design is being finalized and will soon begin volume production with a company near Hershey. MASC has several other solutions in development, and Simpson said he expects to see prototypes soon.

“Companies across the nation are gearing up to create more parts for ventilators and to produce more N95 masks, but since the timing and the distribution of those items to our health care workers is unknown, Penn State researchers want to get ahead of the situation,” Weiss said. “Whether or not any of the MASC solutions pan out is yet to be determined, but do not expect the researchers at Penn State to sit by idly and wait. It is in their nature to innovate.”

To learn more about MASC, to view a March 24 Millennium Café webinar about the initiative, or to find out how you can help, visit https://masc.psu.edu.

'We Are' stories

The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment — and we want to hear your “We Are” stories. 

Visit news.psu.edu/WeAre to share how you or other Penn Staters are supporting each other to overcome the collective challenges presented by the novel coronavirus. We are! 

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 23, 2020